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True Grit


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The United States Postal Service can always be counted on to screw things up. In its recent series of stamps saluting blues and jazz legends, it was decided that Robert Johnson deserved a tip of the hat but needed a little cleaning up before his image could be unleashed on the delicate American public. Using one of the few known photographs of the immortal and tragic Mississippi bluesman as its model, the post office conveniently removed the cigarette that dangled from Johnson's lips. Never mind that the original photo is one of the few precious historical documents of an American artist unequaled in musical impact but largely shrouded in mystery; it's apparently OK to tamper with history, tame it, edit it, make it more palatable so the kids don't follow Joe Camel down to the crossroads.

This should come as no surprise considering the treatment Elvis got. The much-ballyhooed young Elvis/old Elvis vote resulted in a stamp that reflected neither. What we ultimately got was "Happy Days Elvis," a stamp slickly rendered in retro pastels, with the King looking more like a cross between Jason Priestley and Luke Perry than the iconic hillbilly rebel who shook his crotch and thereby shook the world.

Clean it up or reduce it to kitsch--this sort of revisionist, antiseptic swabbing is rampant. In a television interview a while back, a middle-aged Dion DiMucci spoke bitterly about the current perception of doo-wop. The former golden-boy lead vocalist of Dion and the Belmonts in the late 50s and early 60s, DiMucci bristled over the fact that doo-wop--a genre that in many ways represents the height of vocal prowess by both black and white groups of the era--had been reduced in the public's mind to that most loathsome embodiment of crass, commercial nostalgia, Sha-Na-Na. "Bowser!" spat DiMucci, angrily referring to the mugging greaser at the helm of that cartoonish group.

Poor Dion. He is not alone. If doo-wop has been reduced to Bowser, rockabilly has been reduced to reruns of Potsie and the Fonz hanging out at Arnold's. The poodle skirts and pomade, the tail fins and tattoos--they are all images that obscure the raw, elemental blast of revolution that was rockabilly. In Peter Guralnick's Lost Highway, Elvis's original guitarist Scotty Moore described it as "boogie music for dancing with a country-orientated beat and instrumentation." Those apt and simple words tried to explain the murky marriage of country and blues, the music that erupted from the south and let the north know that this was indeed a country divided.

The forebears of rockabilly can be found all across the map. There are the crazed cackles, slapped upright bass, and stinging electric guitar leads of 40s hillbilly boogie band the Maddox Brothers and Rose. There's the young Ike Turner's pummeling piano work on Jackie Brenston's 1951 classic "Rocket '88.'" Rockabilly came out of the Pentecostal movement and it came out of the roadhouse, and it all came together most ecstatically in the teenage Elvis. The late rock critic Lester Bangs put it this way in his 1977 Presley obituary in the Village Voice: "Elvis kicked 'How Much Is That Doggie in the Window' out the window and replaced it with 'Let's fuck.' The rest of us are still reeling from the impact."

Three recent Chicago shows proved the enduring power of that impact. Each act roughly delineated one of the faces of contemporary rockabilly: Ronnie Dawson, a Texas rock 'n' roll singer-guitarist who began recording in the late 50s; Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, a contemporary Orange County-based quintet; and the psychobilly trio called the Reverend Horton Heat, a name that also serves as the stage moniker for its singer-guitarist-driving force, Jim Heath.

Playing at Beat Kitchen, lead singer and rhythm guitarist Big Sandy and his band demonstrated their sophisticated hybrid of western swing, hillbilly boogie, and seminal rock and roll. Punctuated by the remarkable nuance of steel-guitar player Lee Jeffriess, the music this crack band makes is grounded in sublime, period authenticity. Frontman Sandy, aka Robert Williams, with his high, emotive vocals marked by jazzy inflections, emerged as a vibrant force without a hint of kitsch.

While Big Sandy and company carefully and consciously mine the past, the Reverend Horton Heat fuses rockabilly with the power of punk. Playing hard, fast, and loud at Metro, Heath nonetheless lost little guitar finesse. Mixing the surf speed of Dick Dale with the raunchy force of Link Wray, he wielded remarkable power onstage, while the battering-ram beats of drummer Taz and the pluck-and-slap style of upright bassist Jimbo helped move things along. Heath separates himself from other psychobilly musicians on several counts. He really is a remarkable guitarist, capable of pulling off a hot Merle Travis country lead as well as anything in the Scotty Moore songbook. He's also unafraid to occasionally pull away from pure speed and aggression; the sultry, cocktail-lounge feel of "In Your Wildest Dreams" may have alienated his more hard-core fans, but his straight, sexy reading proved he's capable of pulling off more subtle challenges.

For sheer intensity of heart and the will to endure in the face of relative obscurity, Ronnie Dawson is a sight to behold. At Schubas, old-guard Dawson played a frenetic, genuinely inspired set that incorporated blistering Chuck Berry guitar riffing with jagged slashes of souped-up Texas blues. Backed by three-quarters of Nashville's outstanding Planet Rockers, Dawson jerked and jumped, laughed and preened, all while firing through bracing rockers like "Action Packed" and "Rockin' Bones." When he broke from the stage and ran through the crowd, his grinning face a craggy map, the crowd that pushed up to the stage closed around him. Jimmy Sutton, bass player for local opener the Moondogs, hoisted Dawson onto his shoulders and carried him aloft through the dancing crowd. The moment wasn't colored in pastel; it was heroic. Lifted above the adoring crowd, Dawson did what real heroes always do: he pointed his ax and fired away, and for one more night defiantly held off all the airbrushes poised to erase him.

As disparate as these three acts are, they share a deep commonality by firmly planting the past in the present. And what kept it all from being just a good-timey nostalgia trip was the dedication and directness each brought to the stage. Kitsch never sweated or broke into an erratic grin like Ronnie Dawson; it never swelled into the breathy vocal flights of Big Sandy; it never tore rock and roll down to its bones and found punk waiting on the other side like Jim Heath. Rock and roll has always been much more than a certain instrumentation, and Bowser and the Fonz can never re-create the feeling.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Basil Fairbanks Studio.

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